Extolling the virtues of Tim Powers to this audience is probably preaching to the choir, but if you haven’t yet read On Stranger Tides, get thee to Amazon. It was the first Powers I ever read. It’s still my favorite.
The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, neither based nor inspired but rather “suggested by the novel by Tim Powers,” is so-so. It has a clumsy first act, full of cameos and nudge-nudge references to the original film; and the leaden action and fighting choreography is wound into slow-motion by the editing. The biggest problem is POV: the story shouldn’t have had Jack as the main character but rather should have, like Curse of the Black Pearl, focused on the straight man (here, the missionary Philip) whose path intersects with Sparrow’s. That said, it’s not as bad as some of the reviews say. I found the mermaid sequence in Whitecap Bay delightful and I’ll gladly pay $9 to watch Geoffrey Rush channel Robert Newton (or to listen to Penelope Cruz’s accent) anytime. The film’s biggest stars are actually the percussive guitars of Rodrigo Y Gabriela who, along with Hans Zimmer, give the score a Spanish Main emotion missing from the previous installments.
If only the filmmakers had adapted Powers whole cloth! In the 1987 novel, 18th-century puppeteer John Chandagnac — or Jack Shandy, as he becomes known — accidentally falls in with pirates and thereby enters a heretofore unknown world of sorcery and West African animism. The buccaneers of the Caribbean, it turns out, are magicians who can manipulate spirits. Blackbeard himself is a master warlock, but having become infested with vodun loas, must seek out the Fountain of Youth to banish them; he keeps them at bay by drinking gunpowder and burning slow matches in his hair. And he’s not even the main antagonist. Shandy must meanwhile race to save his love from a horrific plot involving zombies and body swapping.
The film throws this rich Caribbean mythology out the window: Ian McShane’s Blackbeard simply has a magic sword and it’s never clear if his grotesque zombie officers are the undead or what. The conniving loas are gone. Nor are there any ship-to-ship battles (Powers has a wonderful engagement in the first chapter: “From out across the blue water rolled a loud, hollow knock, like a large stone dropped onto pavement. Curious, Chandagnac… was distracted by the abrupt white plume of a splash on the face of the sea, a hundred yards ahead to starboard.”). Alas. But I knew a faithful adaptation was not in the works when I read that “Entire characters were added at Depp’s request.” So if the film is mediocre, it was the star who kept it from outright disaster.
Perhaps the oddest result of Disney buying the rights to the book is that their partner Lego has released a line of sets recreating scenes from the film. Which means there are now Lego sets based, in part, on a Tim Powers novel. Take a moment to wrap your head around that.
Nautical or maritime sword-&-sorcery is, for me, two great tastes that taste great together. (Have I mentioned that I have a biography of an American Revolutionary sea captain and privateer out next month? Because if not, then allow me to inform you that I have a biography of an American Revolutionary sea captain and privateer out next month.) It’s a shame there isn’t more of it on the stands. But maybe I’m overlooking some titles. What say ye? Has anyone read Howard’s Lamb collection Swords From the Sea (which I believe Bill reviews in BG 15)? How’s Mieville’s The Scar? Hugh Cook’s The Walrus & The Warwolf? What would you recommend?